Defenders of Freedom

James F. Cendoma: ‘It was almost like they bombed my backyard’

James F. Cendoma spent World War II aboard a Naval vessel in the South Pacific, doing his part to fight the Japanese.

That he was even able to serve his country during the biggest conflict in history is a story in itself.

He joined the Navy in 1943 at the tender age of 15.

“He did a little forging on his birth certificate,” his son, James M. Cendoma, said. “He was not rare in that regard.”

His father said joining the military was simply something he felt compelled to do after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I just felt so bad. It was almost like they bombed my backyard,” he said.

Still, it was more than a year after the attack that he felt he could get away with sneaking into the Navy as an underage recruit, even though it meant dropping out of high school.

Cendoma, 91, of Williamsport, said there are many events he can’t remember from the war, and others he would just as soon forget.

He can recall serving a part in three major battles in which many American lives were lost.

In his own words, Cendoma saw “plenty of beachheads.”

I was on a mortar boat,” he said. “We would be as close to the beach as possible and fire mortars.”

The boat was a small vessel with three mortar guns, he said. Twenty-five men were aboard the ship, not including the U.S. Marines who handled the ammunition.

Cendoma, who had been sent by the Navy to diesel school, was assigned to the boat’s engine room.

It was Cendoma’s responsibility to ensure the boat was running and to troubleshoot problems.

“I was proud of the engine room,” he said. “I knew my job.”

It was his contribution to the war, a conflict which sacrificed many U.S. lives.

The first major skirmish he can recall was at Peleliu in the fall of 1944.

At the time he recalled thinking: What did I get myself into?

American troops suffered major casualties at the hands of the Japanese before securing Peleliu, one of the Palau Islands of the western Pacific.

“I got sick when I heard of the men we lost,” he said.

Later, his ship provided support for the troops at major battles fought at Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

For much of the war, all he saw was water.

Aside from the major battles, his ship sometimes found itself under attack from Japanese kamikaze pilots

“I remember us shooting down Japanese planes,” he said.

Cendoma is pretty sure enemy fire strafed his boat on at least one occasion.

Toward the end of the war, word got back to Cendoma and his shipmates that they were going to take part in an invasion of the mainland of Japan.

That plan was scrapped with the dropping of atomic bombs in August 1945 on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima,

“Boy, did I breathe a sigh of relief,” he said.

After the war, Cendoma came home and found a job working on the dike being built in Williamsport.

“That was the first real job I had,” he said.

It was hard work, lifting stones and using a hammer.

“All I did was swing that hammer,” he said.

He got his high school diploma and took another job at Avco as a machine operator.

Cendoma eventually went to Lycoming College and later Washington College of Law at American University.

He ended up practicing law in Williamsport for a number of years.

He and his late wife, Brenda, raised three children.

Looking back on his time in the military, he said, “I liked the Navy a lot.”

He said he always thanked God that “I never got hit by anything.”